Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Mapping the Holocaust

The keynote speaker at NACIS 2014 described (along with her students) a recent project to map Holocaust survivors stories, and in so doing to “tell stories” with maps. This has been a catch phrase in mapping circles the last few years, especially with ESRI’s Story Map product. But when presented with stories that demand to be told and interpreted inn there own terms—where respect for those stories and storytellers is paramount, telling the story with maps has turned out to be a challenge.

It was a striking presentation, Two comments in particular stuck out. The first was that early drafts of the obvious sorts of maps that might illustrate the Holocaust: showing where camps were located, transportation networks that connected labor and extermination camps, even the routes that survivors recounted, were reviewed by survivors, and that a persistent comment was that they were “like the maps Nazis would have made.”

The second resulted from attempts to map the survivors’ stories in time: it was that narrative—good narrative—does fit in a strict, measured, linear sleeve. Real stories linger in some places, gloss over others, They are specific about geography sometimes, too, and in other times the intimate spaces of a habitual life stop being geographic and the spatial relationships stop being part of the story.

I think these two comments are telling, and reflect back on critiques of cartographic thinking I’ve discussed here over the years in a number of ways.

Godwin’s Law is had to enforce when you are actually talking about the Nazis and the Holocaust, but I would assume that saying someone’s descriptions of the Nazi era are themselves “like something the Nazis would do” is not a comment made lightly. And I can see how the stark diagrams of the Reich and its huge network of detention and extermination facilities, printed with abstract symbols on a white background, would produce this reaction. Because the Nazi crimes were in part grounded in dehumanization: the branding of prisoner numbers, the shaving of hair and wearing of uniforms all stripped outward individuality away from the individuals detained and murdered by the Nazis.

One reaction occurred to me. I’ve been holding Richard M Kelly's essay on riding a train in Switzerland, watching two Jewish man arguing over their religious text, and this arguing is a part of narrative that is missing from maps, Mark Denil says that maps present an argument, but it’s not an argument with anyone. One of the defining characteristics of the monstrous political regimes of our era has been that they brook no dissension; their arguments are one-sided. And so it is with most maps: even if there is a counterargument to be made, it isn’t made on the map. The map, after all—a good map—is supposed to be a well-supported statement of fact.

What if the map of these survivors stories was a series of enactments on a stage-sized base map of Central Europe, an argument with different survivors stories bumping into one another and disagreeing, funny and unembarrassed, as art of a holy search for the elusive truth? What if the best way to map this kind of story was as a performance? What lies would be traced? How much of the argument would be scripted? What would remain of the map when the performance was over?

There is something oddly cowardly about trying to map the numbers of the holocaust, or any of the great disasters of the modernizing world. When professed objectivity becomes a mask for greed, violent hatred, fear and murder, it feels kind of off base to the seek to redeem that objectivity without first offering a ritual obeisance. Maybe there are things that are offensive to map, ot the same time wen wish to celebrate the humanity of.